Lessons from San Antonio: A Pattern for Complex Decisions

A couple of weeks ago, I spent several days in sunny San Antonio.  The weather was uncharacteristically cool, the food was fantastic, and the team of professionals I worked with was extremely capable.  We had just one challenge: Solve a very complex prioritization decision.  Here was the task: Determine how to effectively allocate nearly $5 billion to provide 270 different services across 70 organizational units.

Let’s see.  It’s Monday morning.  Thursday afternoon we present our solution.  We have 3 ½ days.  Hmmm… Where do we start?

Where would you start?  How do you typically set yourself up for success when dealing with a complex decision or challenge? Feel free to compare/contrast our approach with how you would take on a decision like this:

1)   Survey the tools and resources available.  We had historical data, knowledgeable experts—one team member was superb at bringing in the right people at the right time— and helpful tools (e.g., Microsoft Excel and Decision Lens).

2)   Build a simple model/framework that allows you to test your solution(s). One team member had phenomenal modeling skills.  He extracted a small sampling of the information to test our criteria, assumptions, and resource constraints.  That helped us to run scenarios and see what approach would scale to full size.

3)   Maintain perspective and purpose. So as not to get too far down in the model-building weeds, a third team member proved to be masterful at challenging us to think outside of the box, look down the road, and consider what leadership would be really looking for.

We were off and running.  But even with a good start and a play at leveraging our various strengths, the complexity of the task was enormous.  On occasion, we found ourselves heading down the wrong path, or engaging in lively debates about issues that would later become irrelevant.

So on Wednesday morning, we added a fourth element to our strategy:

4)   Organize your various skill sets and time to break down the complexity and ensure forward movement.  We realized that for the team to work together all of the time meant greater inefficiency and a higher likelihood of distraction.  And we knew that each of us had different strengths to leverage.  So we gathered briefly to assess what had to be done by the following afternoon.  First, we wrote out a list of specific, actionable items. Next, we agreed on who would take ownership of each item based on our respective strengths. Finally, we set meeting times regarding issues that needed to be resolved with more than one set of eyes.  In short, we added enough structure around our process to match the complexity of the task.

By layering in the structure, we naturally increased transparency (we all saw what needed to be done) and accountability (each committed to certain tasks).  We focused our various skills and strengths around a common goal. And in the end, we found a solution that was well received by everyone involved – a big success.

I have learned that layering in structure to match the complexity of a decision, task, or concept allows us to work collaboratively with greater focus.  In our next post, we’ll discuss three structure categories to address the complexity challenge: sufficient structure, the right structure, and avoiding excessive structure.  But for now, what experiences have you had with complex decisions, tasks, or other organizational challenges?  And how did you handle them?

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Emergency Landing – Leading through Crisis

“Ladies and Gentlemen, with the loss of our right engine we are still able to fly safely, please do not worry, but we will be making an emergency landing…immediately.”  These words were calmly uttered by the Captain of my flight a few weeks ago coming home from a business trip in Panama City, Florida. No matter how seasoned a traveler I thought I had become, hearing a tremendous BANG and feeling the plane roll slightly right and then left, are not things I want to experience anytime soon.  The nervous energy from me and my fellow passengers could be cut with a knife, yet the plane was eerily quiet until we touched down safely and the plane erupted in applause!

Although the experience was stressful, it offered me the opportunity to reflect on a number of areas in my life, including, how I respond to crises. My reactions in this case were deep breaths, and abiding faith that the Captain and First Officer were completely in control of the situation.  I also recalled a lecture in graduate school by Captain Al Haynes on crisis management.  In 1989, Captain Haynes was piloting United Flight 232, a full flight with over 300 passengers, when the engine exploded and shrapnel cut all hydraulic fuel lines used to control the aircraft. Although this was a catastrophic failure, Captain Haynes managed to remain calm at the helm, speak plainly and directly to the passengers about the magnitude of the problem, and crash-land the plane in Sioux City, Iowa. His efforts that day are credited with saving the lives of 185 passengers.  I will never forget Captain Haynes telling his story and teaching us how to lead through any crisis.

The interesting point is that the same principles can be applied in any situation where the unexpected occurs. As a facilitator, the response is not typically a matter of life or death, but it can feel that way. We have all been in the situation where something occurs that no one expected and you are called to lead through it. Captain Haynes is a remarkable man and I want to share some of the lessons I learned from him on responding to any crises.

1. Fly the plane – In the face of emergency, the first thing to do is to take control of the yoke.  Statistics over the years have accounted a number of tragedies that are the result of pilots focusing only on solving the emergency and losing perspective that even though an emergency has occurred, the plane needs to be flown. The problem is that if the focus is only on the emergency and someone has not taken over the yoke, the plane will spiral out of control and crash. When emergency strikes, remember to fly the plane.

As a facilitator, if something completely unexpected occurs while you are leading a session, remember that if you only focus on the problem you may lose sight of the larger perspective. For example, a participant launches into a tirade.  Focusing only on the words of the tirade and becoming personally offended will get you no where.  As the facilitator, participants are always expecting you to land them safely regardless of what happens.  Address the situation that presents itself but do not get so caught up in the problem that you lose perspective on your ultimate goals

2. Stay calm – When you listen to the flight recording of Captain Haynes and the control power that day, it is eerie how calm he sounds even though he is confronted with a scenario that was considered virtually impossible. At that time, airlines had no mitigation plan for dealing with the type of situation where all hydraulic fuel lines are unusable. Captain Haynes told us that he knew the situation was dire, but he refused to panic because this would only make the situation worse.  How often have we heard the advice to stay calm and do not panic when faced with an emergency?  It’s good advice – when one allows their nerves to control them in crises they may become disoriented, unclear in their thinking, and may even act out of fear instead of reason.

Apply the same principle as a facilitator to remain calm regardless of the situation. When we are calm, we are able to think more clearly and provide direction based on our knowledge, understanding, and skills. As a leader, displaying calm can also help to soothe and settle those who are anxious around you.

3. Be direct with people – Captain Haynes is heard on the cabin intercom telling the passengers, “I’m not going to kid you…We have a serious situation.”  Captain Haynes was direct and honest with the people on the airplane.  When the Captain is straightforward, people are able to respond accordingly. Knowing the impact of the plane hitting the ground was going to be rough, he told them to brace for a landing that would be harder than anything they’d ever experienced.  This allowed the people to prepare. Survivors also said that hearing the Captain’s calm voice allowed them to be reassured that he would do everything in his power to land the plane safely.

As a facilitator, be direct with people. In the example of the tirade by an angry participant, ignoring the problem will not make it go away.  There are a whole bunch of reasons why a participant may be acting out, but addressing the person or their concerns directly is a best practice; otherwise, the problem may only become worse.

4. Prepare, prepare, prepare –  Captain Haynes was prepared for addressing any emergency in flight. He practiced, trained, and studied the variety of scenarios that could occur in flight.  Although this situation was unique, Captain Haynes continually adjusted and responded to the changing conditions of the situation using all of the resources at his disposal. At one point, an airline flight instructor sitting in first class (Dennis Fitch) offered his assistance which Captain Haynes gladly accepted.

Preparation is a key ingredient for success.  If you think through, anticipate, and plan for the unexpected, you are better able to respond to any crises. Good preparation involves practicing your actions and responses, so when situations arise, you have already gone through the experience, even if only in your mind.

What are some methods you employ to deal with stressful situations?

Where’s the boss? Maybe on a meeting treadmill?

The Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled Trapped in a Meeting: Logging How 500 CEOs Spend the DayThe article reported the outcomes from a study by the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School on how executives spend their time.  A central finding was that CEOs spend about 1/3 of their time in meetings.  Breaking down a 55-hour workweek, on average about 18 hours per week are consumed in meetings, 3 hours on calls, and 5 hours in business meals.

Of course, no one is surprised by the fact that a CEO is going to spend time in meetings with key staff, stakeholders, etc. However, the article has me thinking about the level of productivity that is achieved for each hour spent in meetings? Even though you may or may not be a CEO, how productive are you?  If you spend a great deal of time in meetings and you are achieving your goals, something is working well so that’s a step in the right direction. However, if you find yourself struggling each week to advance your agenda, you may be on what I call the meeting treadmill. This is where you are working very hard, sweating and spending a bunch of time running (from meeting to meeting) but you go nowhere and in the end you are right where you started. Sure, if things are going well for you, you may need to turn on the incline so you can burn even more calories.  But, if you are struggling, it may be time to get off the treadmill and talk with a trainer (or your administrative assistant) about making some changes in your workout. You may find yourself wanting to get off the treadmill all together, going outside for a run, and starting a new routine!

Are you on the unproductive meeting treadmill?  Or, have you been able to figure out a productive meeting routine? Please share your thoughts.

1-800 Connect Well in Virtual Meetings

It’s Monday morning…and I just concluded a 7AM conference call with one of our customers in Singapore.  The call went well, but at the conclusion of meetings like this, I often find myself thinking through how well I was able to engage the participants on the line.  I don’t think I am alone in my concern that at times, virtual meetings can be challenging to actively engage participants.

Now more than ever, as organizations seek to optimize their time and resources across the global marketplace, virtual meetings are becoming the norm. Given this reality, I thought it might be helpful to develop some ideas around best practices related to virtual meetings, seek your feedback, and get the dialogue started around this topic. Let me begin with some practical approaches to helping engage participants on teleconference calls (stay tuned – more on the use of video in later posts).

1. Smile – Often, we forget to smile and engage our full personality when we are participating in a teleconference.  In person, I enjoy looking people eye to eye and engaging them in conversations.  However, it is hard to do this when you are not looking at someone’s face but trying to read their body language over a phone.  However, the same rules for connecting in person can apply to connecting online.  People may not be able to look you in the eye, but they can read your level of engagement in your voice. When you smile during a teleconference, the tone and moderation of your voice changes and people can actually feel it.  Bringing personality and feeling to your voice helps participants recognize or better understand the human person on the other end of the phone line and will more likely get them engaged.

2. Ask for attention – Have you ever been on a teleconference and you can tell that no one is paying attention?  How do you know? One situation may be that you ask a question and as people struggle to take the line off mute, they ask you to repeat the question and have no idea what was being discussed. Meanwhile they have been checking emails or writing their next blog post! To fight off the attention gap, start a virtual meeting with a ground rule that asks participants to stay present.  Often, we just assume this is an understood rule but I think by naming the reality, participants are more likely to stay involved.  You might say, “During our call today, I would ask you to stay present. I know there is always a temptation to check emails or do other things while on the call, but let’s stay together so we can accomplish our meeting goal of x,y,z.”  By naming the reality – for example the ease of checking email when on a call – participants may be less inclined to do it because they know that you have explicitly asked them to pay attention and they may have more ownership over accomplishing the meeting goal.

3. Practice – Speaking over a telephone and leading a meeting online is not something you learn in Presenter School 101.  It takes practice to do it well.  Often, I think we just assume it is natural and that everyone should be able to do it, but this is not the case. I am sure you can recount times when you have been in an online meeting and you can tell that the presenter is unprepared and has no idea how to engage participants online. If you are required to lead a demonstration online or a prepared speech, have you practiced your speech prior to the delivery online? If you want to engage in points 1&2 above, you need to be comfortable with what you are going to say so then you can focus on how you are saying it.  Practice helps you accomplish these goals.

4. Seek feedback – What does your voice sound like on a phone line? One way to find out is during your next online meeting, record it and then replay the recording to hear how you sound.  Note places where you have smiled during the call and see if you can hear it in your voice.  Listening to your own voice can be so helpful (along with painful because it is seems so awkward) because it will allow you to make adjustments and hear places where your modulation become static.  Another approach is to have a trusted colleague offer you feedback at the conclusion of the call.

After I started compiling some of these practices more and more ideas starting flowing but no need to overwhelm, it is Monday morning.  As I mentioned above, over the next few weeks I will continue this series on tips and tricks for virtual meetings. I also want to hear from you. Where do you struggle as a presenter or participant when you are in online meetings? What are some approaches you use to engage participants?

Skip your next meeting – we won’t tell

Recently I read an article that said the best way to react to ineffective meetings is just to blow off your next meeting.  This radical approach may or may not work for you (it might depend on the meeting), but the concept behind it is valuable. Here’s the big question:

Do you work for your meetings, or do they work for you? 

With each meeting we might ask ourselves:

1) How does this meeting help me to accomplish my job in the short term? In the long term?

2) How does this meeting help our organization to accomplish our overall purpose, in the short and/or long-term?

3) What is the opportunity cost of the meeting?  In other words, what would I lose from going to the meeting as compared to what I might gain by spending my time doing something else?

If the meeting will be ineffective, but you still have to attend, you might consider how you can make it the best use of your time.  The most effective meetings center around key decisions that all or most of the participants need to make together.  Talking over the agenda ahead of time with the meeting leader, or asking for certain items to go on the agenda, may go a long way.